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Rafa’s Not Mad

In Uncategorized on December 11, 2012 at 3:21 pm

Rafa Benitez seems confident that he can win over the Chelsea faithful as he begins his glorified caretakers role at the club. If I were him I’d not be so certain. Chelsea fans are never likely to accept someone who has made dismissive comments about the club and its greatest manager, back when his Liverpool had something of an unofficial rivalry. It becomes even more impossible when his appointment comes off the back of the most ludicrous sacking in the club’s history, if not the history of the Premier League.

 

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Even with his Liverpool ties he has few friends in the media. This is mostly because he made the cardinal sin of challenging the Sir Alex Ferguson stranglehold on the Premier League and laid bare the hypocrisy that the FA actively promotes when it comes to meting out managerial punishments. It was factually based but the fact he chose to fight that battle, and indeed the time he chose to fight it, the papers were safe to label him “mad”. He’d lost it they said, another victim of Ferguson’s incredible psychological warfare.

This made him a joke. Suddenly he was no longer a successful continental manager. He was a fat Spanish waiter, the perfect target for the xenophobia inherent to the tabloids. To balance out the constant mockery, they insisted that it was somehow sad to see a “great manager” in such a decline. They would have done much better applauding him on his bold stance and pointing out what anyone who knows anything about football should know – that Benitez is a fine coach but a dreadful manager.

Liverpool fans know this deep down inside. They are unique in how obstinate they are when it comes to supporting failing managers. They don’t like to be perceived as “turning on their own”. It is rightly ingrained in a club that was shockingly and falsely demonised by the press time and time again. It created a trench mentality necessary for survival in such an environment – you are either with us, or against us, but if you’re with us you’re with all of us. There has never been a more appropriate club motto than “You never walk alone”.
But inside they knew. They knew that Benitez the coach, with the side he inherited, had worked wonders. Benitez the manager slowly dismantled that team and with each bit of tinkering he made it worse. This was the manager who saw the sublime talents of Xabi Alonso as little more than a makeweight to try and fund the purchase of the far less capable Gareth Barry. In his constant crowing about the necessity of this deal he made Alonso, who had always felt at home at Liverpool, want to leave and resent his treatment.

So grim had the situation got as the signings dragged the quality down he effectively created a team that could only win if it included their two star players – Gerrard and Torres. The papers have made much about how Benitez will get the best out of Torres, as he had in the past. Those writers need to remember their history.

Torres was already a gem when he arrived at Liverpool, masterful on the ball, with a turn of pace and an eye for goal. Torres was all about the right kind of runs, beating a player not with trickery but with knowing the right angle of attack to burst through. He arguably did it better than anyone else in the Spanish league and it was a talent that served him well in the English game too with all those lumbering, slow defenders.

But it was a physically demanding ability to utilise constantly and the inevitable injuries came. What became clear was that when Liverpool didn’t have Torres they struggled to win. So, even when he required a surgery Benitez pressured him to delay it. With each game it got slightly worse but there was enough of the old Torres to push Liverpool to victories. Of course, the damage that it did to the player was becoming increasingly clear. Benitez didn’t care about that though – players are assets, not people, and the team needed him.

Gerrard had to do the same as well, playing through injuries to try and raise the level of a team Benitez had single-handedly run down. When you look at both players now you have to say that he must haunt them in their nightmares. Gerrard blunders his way around the Liverpool pitch looking fit for the knackers yard at 33, Rodgers lacking the fortitude to drop him from a team he shouldn’t get in to on current form. Torres is unlikely to welcome the return of the man who has made him a shadow of himself at a time when players should be at their peak and made him a bit part player in a Spanish line-up with only one truly great striker.

No, hard to imagine that relationship working, especially with Benitez’s ill-advised comments about how Torres has indeed already peaked, a statement delivered at a time when most managers would happily lie and say the best was yet to come. It is classic Rafa, the man management skills of a mortician.

Those who laud his abilities as a manager say you only have to look to what he achieved with Valencia, how he won La Liga and challenged the Barca / Real hegemony. What people rarely ad is that at that time the owners never let him loose on anything as complex as signing players. The had others oversee the transfers and Benitez was there to make sure they knew the system. He was a figurehead, a fall guy when they lost, a genius when they won, more CEO than manager. As soon as he demanded to make the signings so he could build his own team, the board were rightly worried. The public spat over him wanting autonomy saw him leave the club.

Much similar to Chelsea, he took over at Inter Milan when they had won the Champions League. That was a team in transition, aging stars take on one last hurrah by his old rival Mourinho. There would be sme rebuilding required but there was enough of a team there to challenge for honours once more. Of course, to go from the charismatic Portuguese to the clinical Spaniard was a brutal culture shock. He ostracised big names, immediately lost the dressing room and tried to implement his own system of play not because it was required but because he wanted to stamp out as much residual remains of “the special one” as he could.

Naturally the failure was spectacular, the champions of Europe struggling to achieve a mid-table placement, and he was given the golden handshake he clearly raved with his increasingly bizarre and cryptic press conferences. Happy to play up to his reputation, he was now “mad” in two countries, not just one.

Despite a glut of high profile appointments between now and then Benitez was rarely in the frame. Even with his record the baggage that comes with him is not desirable to a club. That, and more often than not, there are simply better candidates.

He will talk a good game to begin with. He’ll bemoan refereeing decisions first time it is pertinent and talk at length about positives that only exist in his own mind. Chelsea won’t challenge for the title this season though. Benitez teams have a history of wilting under the pressure, much like the man himself. He will guide them to an expected Champions League spot, something he will claim is an achievement for the club, before being let go with another golden handshake as Abramovich goes back to pursuing Guardiola. So it is written, so it shall be.

What every Chelsea fan must really worry about is if he is allowed to “stamp his authority” on the team and is given access to the golden chequebook. He’s already talking about offloading Ashley Cole, aging but still regarded bymany as the best left back in the world. Talismans like Lampard have also been talked about as being surplus to requirements. Who knows who’s next? Stalin’s cabinet probably felt more secure than that Chelsea squad right now.

Even talking about transfers two matches into what is clearly a temporary tenure is absurd. This is the norm however in a career where the manager, not the coach, has constantly been the architect of his own, fiscally rewarded, downfall. Benitez isn’t mad. He’s just not very good.

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The Ten Most Bitter Sporting Feuds – Part 3

In Uncategorized on August 3, 2011 at 4:11 pm

Kobe Bryant Vs Shaquille O’Neal

More teammates turned bitter rivals, the pairing of the then most skilful shooting guard and the burliest center to play the game won three titles together at the LA Lakers before something had to give.

O’Neal had always told the Lakers management that the player he referred to as “Showboat” was too selfish for them to win anything with him in the team. Bryant did little to endear himself to people when he insisted that the way the team played was too simplistic for his talents to be showcased and resented the system being designed to put everything through Shaq. When Bryant called out the big forwards defensive commitment he retaliated with the line “if the big dog ain’t me, then the house won’t get guarded – period.”

It became even more personal in their final season together, Kobe telling the press that Shaq came into the season “fat and out of shape” and insinuated that the player would feign injury to hide the fact he was just unfit. When Kobe was falsely accused of rape, O’Neal offered no support publicly or privately, After winning another title together and making noise through the press that they would put the feud behind them, O’Neal requested to be traded away from the team and wound up at Miami Heat.

In recent years the feud seems to have cooled down and O’Neal has offered words of praise for his former team-mates. It’s a shame these didn’t occur in time for them both to have won more titles for both themselves and the Lakers.

Kris Draper vs Claude Lemieux

It takes a special kind of player to be labelled “dirty” in what is effectively a brawl on ice but that was the reputation of one Claude Lemieux. Ranked second in ESPN’s “the Top Ten Most Hated NHL Players Of All Time” and he even bit the finger off one player during a scuffle. It’s safe to say that he had made few friends amongst his colleagues and the fans alike despite his many fine points as a player.

Playing for the Colorado Avalanche in 1996 he put in a huge check from behind on Draper of the Detroit Red Wings, one that saw him left with a broken jaw, broken cheekbone, a shattered orbital bone and a gash that required thirty stitches. After a spell in hospital Draper had to undergo reconstructive surgery and was released with his jaw wired shut.

When the two teams met next season Lemieux, making his first appearance of the season, was a targeted man and although Draper couldn’t exact any retribution himself it was clearly on the mind of his friend and linemate Darren McCarty when eighteen minutes into the game he proceeded to batter Lemieux with a series of blows to the face and head that left the player curled up on the ice. This sparked a huge brawl.

The incident gave an extra element of spice whenever the two teams met and none have forgot what the fans favourite Draper endured at the hands of Lemieux. Several of the matches between the two have resulted in violence even though the two players themselves have never laid hands on each other again.

Tonya Harding v Nancy Kerrigan

Female figure ice-skating is probably the most unlikely sport to produce a bitter feud but this proved the old adage about the female of the species with a sporting rivalry that spilled over into off the rink violence.

Kerrigan was the all-American poster-girl, a well spoken success who cared for her blind father and excelled at school. Harding was from the wrong side of the tracks and had battled against an alcoholic mother and absentee father to achieve her success in spite of her upbringing. Yet the rivalry on the ice was so intense between the two that Harding cracked and came up with a plan to be rid of her rival just prior to the 1994 Winter Olympics.

A plot that involved her husband, Jeff Gillooly, and three other accomplices saw a masked man attack Kerrigan with a lead pipe, specifically targeting her knees, with only weeks to go before the showpiece event in Lillehammer, Norway. Harding denied having anything to do with the attack and while the injuries were serious enough to keep Kerrigan out of the national championships both skaters were selected for the Olympic squad.

When Harding was found to have been involved with the plot her career was over and she was banned for life. Justice was done at the Olympics as well. Kerrigan achieved second, far ahead of Harding who only managed eighth.

Benny ‘Kid’ Paret v Emile Griffith

This feud is shocking mostly for the fact that it was finished in the most decisive of fashions, with one dying at the hands of the other. Rarely does boxing get this brutal.

This bloodiest of feuds got started in 1961 when Paret lost his welterweight title to Griffith after a knock out in the thirteenth round. The rematch was set-up fairly swiftly and was scheduled for six months later. That bout went the way of Paret, the fighter regaining his title, although in what was seen as a controversial decision. A split decision, many who watched the fight were convinced that it was a fix and Griffith certainly felt he had done more than enough to retain the belt.

The third fight was set up to be a classic, the rivalry between the two fighters being stoked from all angles. This spilled over during the weigh in when the Cuban fighter Paret called Griffith a “maricón” the derogatory Spanish term for homosexual. He also threatened to not only beat him up but his “husband”. Although the press ignored the accusation and tried to gloss over it as a mistranslation, the slur had clearly hurt the feelings of Griffith and this led to what is considered one of the most savage beatings in the history of the sport.

In the twelfth round Griffith got his opponent on the ropes and unleashed a barrage of twenty-nine unanswered blows, eighteen of which landed in six seconds. The ref called a stoppage, perhaps too late, and eventually Paret lapsed into a coma. While he was being tended Griffith, unknowing the severity of the beating, goaded “I’m very proud to be the welterweight champion again…and I hope Paret is feeling very good.” The Cuban died ten days later having never woke up.

Griffith was wracked with guilt over what he had done and sought forgiveness from the widow of Paret. She refused to meet with him until her dying day in 2004. Their son was more forgiving and met with the elderly fighter for the final scene of a 2005 documentary about the fight called “Ring of Fire” where they embraced.

The Ten Most Bitter Sporting Feuds – Part 2

In Boxing, Football, Uncategorized on July 27, 2011 at 1:47 pm

Ayrton Senna Vs Alain Prost

It shouldn’t be surprising that one of the most dangerous and glamorous sports in the world produced a rivalry with all the elements to make it the key component of a Hollywood movie. It’s not difficult to see why either – in the space of a few years the story saw friends turned into bitter enemies and it ended in tragedy.

Having formed a dream partnership together at McLaren in 1988 the two drivers contrasting styles saw them take fifteen out of sixteen wins in that season between them. Prost was methodical and mature, the thinking man’s racer whose attention to detail in set-up was the stuff of legend. Senna was younger, a more brash and flamboyant driver and come the end of the season it would be him who would win the title. Prost didn’t seem to harbour too much of a grudge about it conceding that Senna had been “too good”.

Yet, Senna’s aggression had angered Prost and the rivalry was truly born when Senna reneged on their gentleman’s agreement to let whoever was in the lead from the first lap maintain that lead without challenge. During the second round of the 1989 San Marino Grand Prix it was Senna who took the lead, only for the race to be restarted due to a crash. This time it was Prost who took the lead but Senna was having none of it, overtaking his teammate and speeding off into the distance.

What followed down the years was as intense a rivalry as sports had seen, both drivers publicly denigrating the other with numeorus barbs at press conferences off the track and battling each other with risky overtaking and vehicle collisions on it. Both also battled each other for titles, something that continued until Prost’s retirement at the end of the 1993 season.

Although Senna had never indicated it during their time as competitors he was heard saying on radio at the 1994 at San Marion, where the rivalry was born, “A special Hello to my dear friend Alain. We all miss you.” It was to prove to be Senna’s last race when his life was claimed in the last fatal crash that the sport has seen. Prost paid him the only tribute he knew how – “I have lost my greatest rival. The only driver that I ever respected…”

Muhammed Ali Vs Joe Frazier

A lot of the trash talking that surrounds boxers is there purely for hyping the fights. Even when it has genuine sentiment behind it, the general consensus is that any ill feeling is left in the ring, the true indicator of boxing’s roots as a sport fixated with gentlemanly conduct. Not so between two of the greatest names the fight game has ever seen, the rivalry still simmering now even in their old age.

Naturally it was Ali who started it. The “greatest of all time” before he was the greatest of all time always abused his opponents pre-fight but before his first encounter with Frazier he seemed to cross a line when he referred to him as “too dumb” to be champion and an “Uncle Tom”. Frazier wasn’t short of ammunition calling Ali a draft dodger and goading him by refusing to refer to him by his Islamic name and still using Casius Clay throughout the build up. Both fighters were undefeated and in the bout dubbed “The Fight Of The Century” it was Frazier who took both of Ali’s titles in a unanimous decision.

A rematch in 1974 went the way of Ali and it set up their third and final fight, The Thrilla in Manila. If there was any chance that Ali would have gained some respect for his opponent after having lost to him once before, it wasn’t evident from the way he continued to speak about Smokin’ Joe. He said he was “over the hill” and called him a gorilla. The 1975 fight was another classic, Ali earning a TKO in the 14th and it would be the last time they met but not the last time they battled.

Upon learning that Ali had Parkinsons in 1996 Frazier said “’They want me to love him but I’ll open up the graveyard and bury his ass when the good Lord chooses to take him.” Ali offered an apology in 2001, which Frazier was said to have accepted without comment.

Brian Clough Vs Don Revie

The most famous managerial rivalry in football and one that makes Wenger and Fergie look like firm friends, these two unashamedly spoke of their great dislike of one another in public at every given opportunity.

While manager at Derby Clough was extremely vocal about Revie’s Leeds team who he saw as being an overly negative and “dirty” team who used questionable tactics to win games at all costs. As he berated both their methods and success he held himself up as a champion of stylish football. He even put his name to an article that appeared in the Sunday Express that called for Revie to be fined and Leeds to be relegated to Division 2. It was an unprecedented outburst.

Revie had little time for Clough’s criticism seeing the disrespect as both foolish and unprofessional. A staunch believer in winning at all costs he saw his Leeds team as one to be applauded for their never say die attitude and couldn’t understand how someone who wanted to win as much as he did couldn’t appreciate the virtues of the team.

When Revie was left Leeds and given the job Clough always wanted as manager of England, Clough became his successor and the madness that followed in a 44 day tenure has been well documented, spawning an award winning book and a spin-off movie in “The Damned United”. Clough had no love in the dressing room from players he’d previously berated and tried to make wholesale changes. Revie saw this as a pathetic attempt to destroy his legacy.

While the feud would last throughout the lives its most memorable moment came when both confronted each other in an interview on Yorkshire Television in 1974. Coming after Clough had left Leeds, what he saw as his only failure, the two tore strips off each other and left the hapless interviewer a bystander.

The Ten Most Bitter Sporting Feuds – Part 1

In Uncategorized on July 24, 2011 at 2:33 pm

While many of us will wax lyrical about the great champions we’ve admired down the years, those who have pursued athletic excellence and amazed us with their talents, it is so much better when they come with a ready-made nemesis. The two become inseparable and give the sporting stories we all love to recant an almost mythic quality to them. They are all the better when there’s no quiet respect or dignity to them, just unbridled hatred and viciousness… Here’s a list of some of the most bitter feuds in sporting history.

Roy Keane Vs Alf Inge Haaland

Not so much a feud as an example of just how long the fiery-tempered Keane is willing to let something stew before seeking retribution, this warrants an inclusion for producing everyone’s favourite “dirty” tackle from the midfield general.

History forgets, of course, that it was Haaland that had effectively instigated the incident by standing over an injured Keane following a nasty tackle that saw the Irishman come off the worst. The thing that stuck in Keane’s sizeable craw the most was the accusation that he was feigning injury to avoid punishment.

Three and a half years passed before the two had a chance to go at it again and the first meaningful opportunity he got Keane went in for a knee-high challenge that saw Haaland fly through the air and land in a crumpled heap. Barely acknowledging the rightly brandished red card the player left the field only after delivering a barrage of insults in the ear of his writhing victim.

While the initial outcome was a five match ban and an unprecedented £150,000 fine, the challenge entered into the realm of football mythology when Keane stirred the hornet’s nest once more with the admission he had wanted to “hurt” Haaland in his autobiography.

Many pub bores are quick to point out that Haaland never played seriously again after this challenge took place and while that might be true the two aren’t linked. The injury that ended Haaland’s career was in the other leg, although one gets the feeling that Keane likes to believe it was him to blame as much as anyone else out there.

Ian Bothan v Ian Chappell

In 1977 an uncapped 21 year old English cricketer called Ian Botham was playing club cricket “down under”. After a few tipples in the Melbourne Hilton he happened to stumble across the Australian player Ian Chappell who was happily berating all things English after a few drinks of his own. The younger man asked him to stop before giving him a rather ungentlemanly uppercut, knocking him off his chair and into a table full of Australian Rules football players. Or so the story goes… Unsurprisingly Chappell denies it went like that at all.

Despite Chappell having retired before Botham had even represented his country the two always seemed to find reasons to talk about each other through the medium of the press. Chappell would often point to his impressive record of 75 tests with 5,345 runs and label Botham as “nothing special”. Botham on the other hand was more vicious and responded with “as a human being he is a nonentity.”

Although the incident in 1966 was often talked about as part of crickets great mythology, especially ahead of The Ashes, in 1996 Chappell stirred the hornet’s nest again by adding the up until then unspoken detail that Botham had threatened to cut him from “ear to ear” with a broken beer glass if he didn’t leave. Botham denied this newly revealed detail.

Old age didn’t calm them down when at last year’s Ashes the two had to be pulled apart in the car park after Chappell muttered an insult. At 55 and 67 respectively you think they would know better but some feuds just get more bitter with time.

Pele Vs Maradona

The debate about which one of these two is the greatest footballer of all time might well continue to rage for another fifty years. There is no doubt what side of the fence each of the two players are on though when it comes to such discussions and both have no qualms about expressing that.

Funnily enough, with no real playing overlap in their careers (Maradona’s debut was in 1976, with a past it Pele retiring in 1977) they have become fierce rivals solely because of the debate and little else. With only the occasional reference to each other prior to 2000 it was FIFA that seemed to set the ball rolling with their online vote to crown the player of the century. After Maradona won it, they decided to alter the award and dubbed it in the “Internet Player Of The Century” giving the main award to the much more clean cut – Viagra not withstanding – Pele.

This prompted a tirade of spiralling abuse from the always emotional Argentinian that started with him saying Pele won “by forfeit” and the had had won “the people’s vote” and ended with him stating that Pele had a homosexual affair during his time at Santos. Pele made it clear he’d not be responding to the allegations due to Maradona’s drug problems fuelling delusions.

Each year afterwards when one spoke to the press it seemed the other was never far behind. In 2007 Maradona said “I won’t network and lick my way through Fifa. I won’t do that, that would make me a total son of a bitch. Like Pele.” The Brazilian followed up with a call for Maradona to be stripped of his honours “”Why is it Olympic athletes lose their medals when caught taking drugs, but not him?”

It’s showed no sign of abating with only last year Maradona insisting that “Pele should go back to the museum and stay there” making this feud between two sportsmen more akin to something you might see on an internet forum.

Personality Flaws & The Real McCoy

In Uncategorized on December 20, 2010 at 11:28 am

Does the BBC Sports Personality Of The Year Award actually mean anything anymore? Is it there to celebrate the great achievements by British sporting individuals that have enriched all of our lives? Or is it just another waste of license payers money, a back slap awards ceremony where the who wins it actually means nothing and is barely heard over the invitees laughing as they quaff free champagne at your expense?

 


Well, maybe it’s neither of those things but as an award to recognise outstanding talent in competitive fields it certainly misses the mark further than a sober darts player playing on a cruise ship. Last nights winner confirmed the freefall had plummeted to a point where none of even the worst pessimists would have thought it could get to… Yes, if you thought Zara Philips winning it was the lowest ebb, then imagine my surprise when it was won by someone nobody had actually fucking heard of.

 
The winner, Tony something or other, too looked stunned even though it was likely he had been told prior to the event he had won just to ensure he bothered to turn up. Apparently he had something to do with horses, which was actually interesting because he did look a bit like one, albeit one with a body withered by polio. The runner-up wasn’t looking much healthier… Phil “The Power” Taylor doesn’t look much like he has any power at all these days, his diet leaving him with the look of a man who knows he only has a year or two left at best after being ravaged by a wasting disease.

 
Yes, even the most boring reformed darts player couldn’t win, kept off the podium by the world’s dullest man, which is ultimately what these awards have turned into. Whatshisface was supposedly over the moon though and brought out the most extreme adjectives when it came to expressing his joy at winning:

 
“This is an unbelievable feeling to win this award” he said, echoing sentiments uttered by anyone who has ever won anything they are completely indifferent about.

 
Perhaps the real question isn’t how thingy won the award but why was the field of contenders so poor that he was able to win it with almost 42% of the vote. Has there been an investigation into irregular betting patterns? If not there should be as I can’t believe for one moment that the general public decided to choose a jockey over the people that partake in real sports, no matter how mediocre they might be.

 

 

Of course having the word “personality” in the award name is a major stumbling block because none of the winners actually have any at all, or at least haven’t for years. Now they have that skin-crawling lack of charisma you associate with that person who the family call “uncle” but actually isn’t related to you at all. They simply stand there grinning like a paedophile mannequin unable to introduce any humour into the proceedings or come up with just one amusing anecdote. Indeed the last person to win it with any sort of personality was Paula Radcliffe, and I say that mainly because of the bobbing head thing and the fact I’ve seen her piss in the street like a common slag from Bolton.

 
And it’s unstandable why you’d want to shift the focus away from personality altogether as often it would be at complete loggerheads with professionalism. I mean, George Best, Alex Higgins, Paul Merson… They’ve got bags of personality but having them recognised for being cocaine using, gambling addicted wheezing alcoholics who were capable of moments of sporting brilliance even in their addled state probably sends out the wrong message to that all important commodity – the kids.

 
Yet at least the others, even including last year’s winner Ryan Giggs – a rare deserved winner in a fairly sketchy last six years – had stood out and achieved something spectacular in their field, a sport that people genuinely cared about and had international appeal. I’m not sure horse racing really has that going for it and how can winning a Grand National after fifteen attempts compare to a twenty year career at one of the best football clubs in the world, having won more trophies than any other British player still playing the game? Simply put, it doesn’t.

 
Is it right that… No it’s gone again, but is it right that he should be up there with the likes of Ian Botham, Daley Thompson, Nigel Mansell, Steve Davis, Nick Faldo, Paul Gascoigne and Linford Christie. World beaters and some of the best sportsmen that Britain has produced. Of course, to be a world beater you have to actually partake in a sport where people from all over the world actually compete in. Horse racing is an anachronism, an excuse for degenerates to throwaway their money and to be fleeced by inside betting scams. It also allows John McCririck to continue labouring under the delusion that he’s important. How is that a good thing?

 
Maybe the problem I have is with the sport and not the sportsman… Understandable really given the horses do most of the work. Whichever way you slice it though, this award needs to stop now. Unless of course the prize is a year long stint of humanitarian aid work involving trips to leper colonies and minefields. In that case, can we open the phonelines now? Things just got interesting.